Christmas Traditions Stand Test of Time

My father picked trees that were very full while my mother always wanted a tall, slender tree. This one from 1993 is both very tall and very full.
My father picked trees that were very full while my mother always wanted a tall, slender tree. This one from 1993 is both very tall and very full.

By Lisa Yorkgitis Nahach

When my family and I sat down on a hay wagon last Sunday at Timber View Tree Farm in Hartsburg, Mo., we thought we were going to take a short jaunt to a nearby field. That’s why my husband, Jim, and I didn’t stop our son Tim from picking up our 40-pound Westie mix, Martha, and settling on the outward-facing seat of the hay wagon. However, when the driver headed in an unexpected direction and picked up speed, we feared for Martha’s life.

Over bumpy, dust-covered country roads, we rode for about 15 minutes down hill and up, around curves, and even over a creek. Tim braced himself on the red wooden bench while holding onto Martha. As the wind whipped through Martha’s strawberry-blonde fur, her eyes bugged out with surprise, anxiety, and excitement. For her,  it was like a roller coaster. Jim held onto Martha’s collar, and I held onto Tim’s T-shirt. I breathed a sigh of relief when we finally stopped at a tree-covered field we never had seen.

Visiting the tree farm constitutes one of our favorite holiday traditions. Sure, I’m not fond of prickly needles that linger well into the new year, but Christmas would not be Christmas without our tree hunt, the balsam scent of a fresh tree, and memories created from trees with scoliosis. Although these trees may look okay before we cut them down, at home, they require frequent adjustments, rocks wedged in the tree stand, and concrete slabs that tilt the tree stand at a precarious, but usually effective, angle. Do they ever fall down? Of course! (This year, though,  we picked a tree that has no trouble standing straight. We finally have learned a thing or two.)

When my parents began a family, they, too, chose live trees. They picked a small fresh tree with roots and soil bound in a burlap sack. After Christmas each year, my father planted the trees in the yard.  Years later, some of those trees became Christmas trees once more, minus the roots, of course.  Eventually, my father transitioned to buying trees from a lot, but I don’t think my parents ever would have bought an artificial tree. My mother probably would have said, “That’s not early American. ”

During the years my parents lived in Missouri, my siblings and I modified family traditions to suit their changing needs.

My sister, Elaine, bought a decorated wreath that we usually hung on their door. In Pennsylvania, my parents hung two wreaths because they had a double-door entrance. My mother adorned them with large full bows she tied herself and arranged at a jaunty angle.

In Missouri, I displayed my parents’ Nativity set at my home, in their apartment, or in one of their nursing-home rooms. Made in Italy, the set features brightly colored figures. My parents bought each piece in the 1950’s for 29 cents at a Woolworth’s five-and-dime. In Pittsburgh, we arranged the figures around the Christmas tree, usually on a snow-white sheet covering a wooden board. My mother hid Baby Jesus until Christmas Day, and the three wise men and their camels traveled around the board,  arriving at the manger on Epiphany, Jan. 6. 

In Missouri, my siblings and I also provided one or both of my parents with a tree. One year, my brother, Chip, bought a small artificial tree for my mother’s nursing-home room and decorated it with off-white wooden ornaments. The next year, I also hung a few of the cinnamon-and-applesauce ornaments I created with input from my mother. Last year, my husband suggested I set up in my dad’s room the artificial tree from his office. I think Dad liked the lights that twinkled and played Christmas carols.

My family and I also tried to take my parents to Mass on Christmas Eve, but it wasn’t always possible. In 2008 and 2010, my mother was in the hospital, and we visited her after Mass. Last year, my father had many ups and downs health-wise, but we were able to take him to the 5:30 p.m. children’s Mass at St. Joseph Cathedral. Afterward, I pushed his wheelchair to the front of the church so that he could see the life-size Nativity scene, another tradition I have carried over from my childhood. We lingered for about ten minutes, soaking in the good will and tranquility.

As I write this, I am sitting in the music room at Pioneer Trails Elementary School in Jefferson City. I am a substitute teacher, and since today is the last day before winter break, I have an easy schedule. That’s good because when I go home, I have a lot to do. First on the agenda: stringing lights on our Christmas tree. Although my father always strung lights on trees of my childhood, I put on our lights, using directions from Martha Stewart Living. I wrap the lights around individual branches, which hides most of the cords and creates a tree filled with light from trunk to branch tips. It takes hours and more cords than I care to admit. It also drives my husband nuts, especially when the time comes to take down the tree.

My mother first saw one of our Christmas trees thirteen years ago, when my oldest child was just a kindergartner. After admiring the shimmering light show, she said: “Jim did a good job putting on the lights.” I set her right. After all, some traditions are better off with a twist.

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